Within a week of their AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, the overwhelming consensus was that the Steelers must focus their efforts on building a roster that can carry them past the Patriots. The complaints were that the Steelers played too much zone and not enough press man coverage, and that they didn’t blitz often enough to get pressure on Tom Brady. It was said that the Steelers had gotten away from what got them to Foxboro in the first place. The simple truth is the Steelers secondary didn’t have the personnel to match up with the Patriots receivers either in press man, which is what they were in when Chris Hogan beat them deep for a touchdown, or zone coverage. When the Steelers blitzed, and they did quite a few times, the Patriots did a very good job of picking it up. As easy as it is to criticize the Steelers for what they didn’t do, the fact is, despite the pain it brings to admit this, the Patriots are just that good at what they do.
Another overlooked truth is, it wasn’t the defensive effort that lost the game for the Steelers, it was the lack of execution on offense. The best way to beat the Patriots is to keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s possession. If he doesn’t have the ball, he can’t score, and the Steelers couldn’t sustain anything on offense. It’s easy to speculate, but chances are, if LeVeon Bell, Ladarius Green, and Martavis Bryant had been available to the Steelers, it would have been a whole different ballgame. There is no reason for the Steelers to change who they are or what they do, just to beat one team. Doing what they do has been good enough to win six championships, and it will be good enough to win a seventh.
Free Agency: Grade A-
Losses: LB Lawrence Timmons, WR Markus Wheaton.
Gains: WR Justin Hunter, RB Knile Davis, CB Coty Sensabaugh, DL Tyson Alualu.
The Steelers entered free agency with a significant amount of cap space, which they have put to very good use. The first thing they did was give Antonio Brown a 4 year/$68 million dollar extension, and followed that by applying the exclusive rights franchise tag to LeVeon Bell, with the hopes of working out a long term deal. They also re-signed backup QB Landry Jones for 2 years/$4.4 million. After committing $84 million to retaining three of their own, the Steelers went outside looking for depth. After signing WR Justin Hunter and RB/KR Knile Davis to one year deals, the Steelers signed CB Coty Sensabaugh and DL Tyson Alualu to two year deals.
Justin Hunter essentially replaces Markus Wheaton, Knile Davis will be in competition with Fitzgerald Toussaint, while Coty Sensabaugh and Tyson Alualu likely replace William Gay and Ricardo Matthews. All four signings have the potential to make the Steelers better and improve their depth. At 6’4″/205 lbs, Justin Hunter is a burner who should benefit greatly from having Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback. Knile Davis gives the Steelers a kickoff returner with the ability to take it all the way, while Tyson Alualu is an immediate upgrade over Ricardo Matthews. A starter for most of his career, Alualu is that guy who can come in and spell Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward to help preserve them.
Sometimes the best moves are the ones that don’t happen, and with the case of Don’ta Hightower, rejecting the Steelers offer qualifies as a blessing. Apparently the Steelers offered Hightower more money than he accepted from the Patriots, after Kevin Colbert told him their offer was only good while he was in Pittsburgh. While it’s hard to blame Colbert for taking his best shot at luring Hightower away from New England, or for issuing him the ultimatum, the Steelers are much better off with Vince Williams replacing Lawrence Timmons. At less than half the cost of Hightower, Vince Williams is a far better value. With similar coverage skills to Hightower. Williams’ combined tackles as a part-time player were only 15 less than Hightower’s were as a starter. Don’ta Hightower returning to New England certainly qualifies as a win for the Steelers.
Areas of need: Edge Rusher/OLB, CB, RB, and Safety.
What the Steelers did during free agency does give some indication as to what their draft strategy may be. The priority still remains an outside linebacker opposite Bud Dupree. They can’t realistically expect a 39 year old James Harrison to start every game, or to drop into coverage on a regular basis, because that isn’t fair to expose him like that. With that in mind, it makes sense that the Steelers take an OLB with their first pick, and they choose one with a strong motor, Charles Harris-Missouri.
The Steelers second biggest need is a cornerback, opposite of Artie Burns, who can transition back and forth between press man coverage and zone. They need someone with the size to deal with the bigger receivers in the AFC North, and the speed to run with them. While Ross Cockrell has done an admirable job outside, he is better suited inside as a number three corner, covering tight ends. With their second round pick, the Steelers will address this need with a former running back converted to corner, sound familiar? the 6’0″/205 lb speedster, Fabian Moreau-UCLA.
With two picks in the third round, the Steelers have two needs they must fill, safety and running back. With the uncertainy surrounding the health of CB Senquez Golson, the Steelers forego their need at safety and go back to the cornerbacks left on the board, selecting another big cornerback who can run, Cordrea Tankersly-Clemson. With their third round compensatory pick up next, the Steelers now look to find their backup to LeVeon Bell, wanting someone with a nice blend of power and speed. For this pick, they have to go no further than the other side of the wall at their practice facility to grab RB James Conner-Pitt.
With the Steelers looking more and more like they will be parting ways with Shamarko Thomas, there will be a need to replace him. While Jordan Dangerfield showed some promise after finally making the 53 man roster, the Steelers still need a backup they can count on, one who can cover and, in equal measure, support the run. It’s here in the fourth round that the Steelers find their safety, the 6’1″/216 lb Delano Hill-Michigan.
With their last three picks, the Steelers will have the luxury of drafting mainly for depth, perhaps even a quarterback to compete with Zach Mettenberger, the guy with the million dollar arm and the ten cent head. Regardless of how it shakes out, this draft lines up perfectly with the needs of the Steelers and is unusually deep at those positions. While it isn’t likely, this could end up being that one rare draft where the Steelers leverage some picks to move up, at some point, to get someone they desire.
Kevin Colbert has done a nice job, to this point in the offseason, of adding versatility and depth to the roster. Each addition looks like a potential upgrade to what he is replacing, especially if Justin Hunter can approach his potential, and if Knile Davis can successfully fill the kick returner role like he did in KC. If so, the Steelers will be well ahead of where they were last year. Colbert has also done a good job of staying the course and avoiding all of the unnecessary temptations that go along with having a lot of room to work with under the salary cap. That discipline will really pay off if he is able to roll over, say $10 million, and add it to next years cap number. With Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier due contract extensions, that extra money really come in handy.